The breast test: Should minors be checked for their genetic chance of developing cancer?

What to know and when to know it: Two mammography images show the difference between a non-cancerous (left) and cancerous (right) breast.
What to know and when to know it: Two mammography images show the difference between a non-cancerous (left) and cancerous (right) breast.Courtesy National Institutes of Health
Record numbers of women are opting for a test that checks if their genetic make-up makes them stronger candidates for breast cancer. Last year about 100,000 women were tested. Doctors generally recommend against testing anyone under the age of 25, the same age that mammograms are first recommended. That’s because little can be done to screen or prevent breast cancer before that age.

But a growing movement among young women wants to find out how their genetic make-up could impact their risk for breast cancer. And they want to find out that news at an earlier age.

It’s a hot ethical question in clinics across the country today, which is explained in full detail here.

On the one side, pro-testing people point out that young people armed with this information could make lifestyle choices that could reduce their cancer risk. There is some evidence that young women with a positive genetic test have quit smoking, for example. Others have limited alcohol intake or avoided using birth control pills, two other factors that can raise breast cancer risk.

On the other side of the debate, researchers say that young women have enough health issues to deal with at an early age. Ringing alarms for something they can’t be “officially” tested for until later in life is just one more worry that they really don’t need to deal with at the time.

The tests themselves cost around $3,000. More and more medical insurance companies are providing coverage for the test.

If the test shows a faulty gene, the patient’s risk of developing breast cancer is three to seven times higher. In a few cases, parents have tested the genes of their pre-adolescent children. One girl test was just four years old.

What do you think? Is this good genetic curiosity or being a genetic busy-body? Is it important to find out this information if nothing can be done to treat the situation for a number of years? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

Ooooh, this is a fascinating question. And two issues jump immediately to my mind:

One is that people under 18 (or 21, if in college) are often carried on their parents' insurance. Would the results of a genetic test make it harder to get insurance once those young people are on their own?

And the second thought is that risk-balancing is a tough job, even for adults. For adolescents, it's even harder. Unless there are a ton of genetic counselors trained to talk to talk to patients at different levels of maturity, I'm not sure how useful the information really is.

posted on Mon, 09/22/2008 - 4:06pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Genetic counselor, now there is a job that is destined to be a big deal in the next few decades.

posted on Mon, 09/22/2008 - 9:19pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

It's one thing to be a young woman in her late teens (17-18) and her 20's to want to test themselves compared to a four year old being tested because her parents are wealthy enough. The whole issue of genetics determining diseases is still a little iffy for me. but I think women in their 20s should be able to do it.

posted on Thu, 09/25/2008 - 12:02pm

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